The Rat Trap: Contestation over rodent control in Cape Town

Year: 2018

Working Paper Number: 410


Author: Nicoli Nattrass, Jed Stephens and Jorich Loubser


This paper discusses policy contestation in Cape Town over an expanded public works program (EPWP) in which previously unemployed people were hired to help poor households in Khayelitsha (a low-income suburb) deal with rodent infestation in a ‘poison free’ manner. EPWP workers, managed by Environmental Health (EH), a government operation in Khayelitsha, set cage traps for rats inside people’s homes. This project was halted after the South African National Council for Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) objected because the rats were subsequently drowned. We show that rival understandings of the morality (or humaneness) of rodent control shaped the policy contestation. EH officials held that cage-trapping and drowning rats was preferable to poisoning them primarily because rat poison was dangerous to children, domestic animals and other wildlife. In so doing, they adopted a broader, and more ecological, notion of welfare that extended beyond the NSPCA’s focus on whether the rat was killed in a cruel and legal manner. The clash in perspectives nevertheless had some common ground: both ‘sides’ believed that drowning was cruel. For EH, it was the least worst option and officials continued to seek alternative, poison-free and more humane methods of disposing of rats (though these proved impractical). We draw on a representative survey of Site C in Khayelitsha to show that EH’s approach had significant support amongst local people. Most agreed that workers should be allowed to trap and drown rats and those who said they were concerned about rat poison killing other animals like cats and owls were more likely to do so. Those who believed that drowning was painful for the rat were less likely to agree with cage-trapping and drowning.  

Publication file: 

WP410 - Nattrass, Stephens, Loubser.pdf